Women, Modernism, and Intelligence Work, special issue of Modernist Cultures: Edited by Simon Cooke and Natalie Ferris

Natalie Ferris (Editor), Simon Cooke (Editor)

Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issuepeer-review


This special issue, guest edited by Simon Cooke and Natalie Ferris, draws together discussions of the role of women in intelligence in its many forms: surveillance, transcription, cryptography, espionage, translation, observation, visualisation, recording. The contributors - Adam Guy, Julia Jordan, Adam Piette, James Purdon, as well as Cooke and Ferris - consider how work conducted across these fields influenced and inspired creativity from the early twentieth century through to the post-World War II period, in art, science, and literature, and how it placed pressure on emerging technologically-enhanced means of expression and creative practices, and ultimately women’s standing in society. The challenges of interception, the ways that visitations are made upon texts, and the ephemerality of knowledge all came to feature heavily – if ambiguously – in the literature, art and film of the period. How did notions of the clandestine war fought by the intelligence services seep into the popular consciousness? What new encrypted modes of seeing, speaking, reading or writing arose and what significant aesthetic returns did they yield?

For the authors under discussion – Elizabeth Bowen, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rose Macaulay, Muriel Spark, Rebecca West and others – secret work meant a new reckoning of the balance between concealment and revelation. The changes war had wrought upon authorship correspond with what Elizabeth Bowen diagnosed in 1945 as a ‘rising tide of hallucination’, responding to a reality that was ‘always, a little stranger than fact’. Numerous volumes on the life and legacy of British intelligence sites such as Bletchley Park have appeared in recent years, and yet much of what took place throughout the war remains elusive: as Enigma traffic fell silent at the end of the war vast quantities of documents, working aids and machines were destroyed at Churchill’s instruction, many experiences and findings were never recorded, certain documents remain classified, and subsequent personal accounts have sometime proven unreliable or inconsistent.

One aspect, however, has found resolution and new voice in recent years: the significance of the work conducted by women, recasting our sense of the role of women in the modern history of invention, computing and technology. By 1944, women outnumbered men at Bletchley Park three to one. It is these women, and those that followed in their wake, to whom we attend: high-level cryptanalysts, such as Joan Clarke, Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Ruth Briggs, linguists and translators such as Dorothy Hyson, Sheila Lawn, and Pamela Rose, artists such as Penelope Ascherson, Dorrit Dekk and Margot Sandeman, writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rosamunde Pilcher, Muriel Spark and Freya Stark, all of whom laid visionary paths and established radical new economies of meaning for writers, thinkers, coders, analysts, artists today. The focus on these writers challenges a tendency to think of fictions of espionage and intelligence as a predominantly male domain. What strategies and ways of knowing remain hidden, guarded and unknown? What does this elusiveness reveal about our contemporary moment?

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-448
Number of pages16
JournalModernist Cultures
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2021


  • post-war
  • intelligence
  • women's writing
  • women's literature
  • british literature
  • women
  • creativity
  • Intelligence Services
  • labour
  • word and image
  • second world war


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